by Doug Carpenter


Nice Work If You Can Get It

Whenever working for a living comes up in conversation, most people seem to need little if any encouragement to voice their opinions about it — largely, I think, because it’s a lot easier to talk about work than to actually do any. Except, that is, if the particular conversation it comes up in happens to be between college age-and-up children and the parents they’re still living with while going to school to get their degree.

And among those knowledge-hungry young adults who resisted the lure of the disparagingly-named “professional student” lifestyle, there are still plenty who even after they graduated are perfectly content to continue sleeping in the rooms they grew up in — superhero bed sheets, boy band posters and all. The people I personally know who made this choice assure me that they only did it to “economize.” [We Boomers are nothing if not practical.]

After all, not having to shell out money [...that you don’t have anyway...] for a place of your own while trying to find a job at which to use the education you continued living with Mom and Dad while you pursued so that you can earn enough money to afford your own place would seem to make perfect — if slightly headache-inducing — sense. [When I asked them how much home-cooked meals, weekly laundry service and free cable factored into their purely “pragmatic” decision, the conversations had an odd way of ending abruptly.]

It’s a phenomenon that’s become increasingly more common among families over the past few generations, gaining the greatest traction — as so many of our culture’s really fun evolutionary developments have — with the Baby Boomers. For the record, though, it should be noted that our generation’s parents did make a pretty strong argument for getting an education — even stronger than the one for getting a haircut. [And you’d have thought they were never going to let that one go.]

It was a message they communicated with a passion almost as intense as the obsession today’s I’m-sure-well-intentioned but highly-competitive Moms and Dads seem to have with positioning their grade school-age kids for a shot at an Ivy League scholarship. And on its face, that may well seem like a commendable and totally good parenting-motivated goal.

Unfortunately, too many of them seek to achieve it by packing virtually every minute of what used to be called their kids’ “free” time with activities intended to expand their physical, intellectual and spiritual horizons. [And hey, if they should happen to look good later when they’re filling out applications for college, there’s nothing wrong with that, right?]

Compared with what was available back when I was but a boyish Boomer, however, the range of today’s choices is positively mind-blowing. Banjo lessons. Vegan cooking classes. Ballet, hip-hop and Celtic folk dancing. Gymnastics, yoga, curling and Xtreme snowboarding instruction — not to mention traditional sports like t-ball, soccer, lacrosse and youth hockey, whose league rules actually require travel to other cities to compete. [Fortunately, unused Chuck E. Cheese gameroom tokens are good at any franchise location.]

And even if you can’t maintain a healthy balance in your child’s diet or sleep schedule, you could always equalize their extracurricular yin and yang with a nice program blending full-body martial arts with Japanese origami paper-folding. Hold on. Did I say could? Have no doubt. Somewhere, there’s a parent who’s tried to fit all of the above and more into the after-school recreational rotation of some poor, overcommitted kid [...who, assuming they survive having that much formative “fun,” is going to have one kick-ass essay to show those college admissions reps.]

After all the time, effort, registration fees and road trip gasoline they’ve jointly invested in securing that highly-prized education, it’s a shame so many parents and children end up where they do. Trapped together by circumstance under one roof and locked in a recurring confrontation — the tone of which, as you can imagine, can range from melodramatic to disrespectful to downright demoralizing.

This is true even when that exchange consists almost entirely of the parent playing the time-honored “So, are you ever going to get a job?” card [...a question that sounds a lot more reasonable when you’re asking it than when you’re being forced to answer it...] and the offspring firing back with the equally-classic “I’m not a kid any more. Get off my back!” [Note to Hallmark: If you ever decide you want to launch a line of “Raw Emotions” greeting cards, give me a call.]

Throwdowns like these rarely result in a decisive win for either side. But as I see it, work doesn’t have to be nearly as generationally-divisive an issue as it seems to have been for so long. In fact, regardless of what era produced you, the generally-perceived-as-huge gap that supposedly separates us into different professions, pay grades and socioeconomic strata can actually be bridged by a universal and [...if I do say so myself...] elegantly-simple description that I believe accurately and succinctly describes any job in the world.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a blue-collar laborer or a white-collar paper-pusher, an hourly employee or a salaried executive, a no-education-necessary newbie or a Ph.D.-required seasoned-and-smug-about-it professional. My theory covers them all, effectively summing up every person’s organizational standing, job duties, working conditions and performance expectations — all in four concise, two-word phrases: “Hey you. Do this. Work here. Hurry up.”

Seriously. I challenge you to name any job that that mantra doesn’t fit. And should even that semantic shorthand still strike you as too wordy, you’re in luck. Because after you’ve sufferingly soldiered on for a suitable period of time doing whatever it is that you do wherever it is that you do it, the description — and sometimes [...although I wouldn’t count on it...] also the job — gets easier.

Whether for efficiency’s sake or simply as a by-product of mental fatigue, those eight words frequently get whittled down to just four: “You! This! Here! Hurry!” — usually, as you can see, delivered more directively than politely. And if you found the idea that everybody’s job could be reduced to just four words intriguing, I have another number for you. Guess how many different kinds of employees there are in any work situation.

[Actually, if I really let you guess and you got it right, you’d probably expect to win a prize, which I’m afraid I didn’t budget for. I’d offer you a free copy of my book, but as you can see I’m still writing it. So I suppose I’ll just have to tell you. Sorry.] No matter where you work, there are just three kinds of people.

First, there are the ones who do as little work as they possibly can — which, ironically, often ends up requiring more energy than simply doing it. Then there are the ones who routinely do more than they should — which all too often ends up being more than they’re paid to do but which obviously someone has to do since the people in the first group aren’t.

And finally, there’s everyone else — a group that qualifies as a single category by virtue of their shared and desperate desire not to get caught in the crossfire when finger-pointing, mean-spirited Suggestion Box stuffing and passive-aggressive e-mail wars inevitably erupt between the first two. [Three groups, no waiting... or escaping.]

But when you come right down to it, we’d be kidding ourselves if for even a moment we entertained the idea that there’s any way of escaping the reality that we all have to “do” something productive with our lives. Some people refer to it as having a “work ethic.” Others think of it as recognizing and answering their “calling.” Most, I suspect, tend to focus on the paycheck part of the deal.

Everybody who’s competing in the proverbial “rat race,” though, is really just trying to keep up with the rest of the rats. It certainly doesn’t help, of course, that some of the other scrawny-tailed runners are now robotic. It’s a reflection of the stark reality that advancing workplace technology is progressively replacing real people with artificial intelligence. You know, kind of like the way that the smarter kids in the class could edge you out back in school? [Still, at least they were human. Annoying... but human.]

As more and more of us approach and reach retirement, we’ll inevitably find ourselves looking back with increasing frequency to the “good old days.” It’s important to remember, however, that such defining times and the meaningful memories they hold are inherently unique for each generation. By contrast with the values-shaping social and political upheaval that Baby Boomers witnessed growing up, their Greatest Generation parents lived through a war that threatened the future of the world and a depression that brought a nation to its knees.

Yet even with those differences, I believe that in many ways we all look back upon our lives through the same eyes. Grateful eyes, with which we search for and remember with affection the good and decent people we met and worked with along the way. And opened eyes, through which we recognize, if with some regret, the opportunities we never got or the challenges we never believed in ourselves enough to accept.

But however we remember our life, if we can look back on it and honestly say that, for the most part, we lived it with enthusiasm and joy and saw it — even the parts we had to spend working — as a labor of love, I’d call that a life well lived and a job well done.

© 2017 Doug Carpenter

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